New York Times

Wednesday, June 10, 1998

In Bilingual Schooling Setback, Educators See Another Swing of the Pendulum

With the defeat of bilingual schooling in California, educators around the country are examining that program's ill-fated path and drawing parallels to the outcome of other educational innovations of recent decades.

They say the story of bilingual education -- its rise in the 1960s, preceded by little research or experience in it; its mushrooming bureaucracy; the passion of its ill prepared implementation, and, in California at least, its sudden abandonment for an equally unproved method -- is the story of American education.

Whether the issue is reading or mathematics, outcome-based education or open classrooms, public schooling in this country lurches from one trend to its opposite with alarming speed and little forethought, they say.

"It is the pendulum-swing approach to educational reform," asserted Patricia Albjerg Graham, professor of the history of education at Harvard University. "Bilingual education exemplifies the American enthusiasm to find a complete solution by going to extremes, when most solutions in fact are in the middle."

Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, put it this way: "Bilingual education, like every interesting idea, was eventually carried to a pernicious extreme and created its own backlash. It began for humane and reasonable motives. But it got distorted, twisted and turned into a caricature, with its interest groups and zealots and funding streams. The view was, If one year of bilingual education is good, two years must be better."

Bilingual education -- teaching immigrant children in their native language while they simultaneously learn English for several years -- has hardly vanished overnight. It exists in most states and has many backers and practitioners.

But it was decisively rejected last week by California voters, many of them Hispanic. Barring a successful court challenge, then, bilingual education will end in the state that is home to 45 percent of the nation's children with limited English skills. And other challenges to it, in the states and in Congress, suggest that its days as a widely hailed solution to the complex problems of immigrant absorption are numbered.

Yet the program that will replace bilingual education in California -- one year of so called structured English immersion for all limited-English students, with minimal instruction in other subjects during that period, all of it in English -- comes equally untested. That was the main reason many of California's political leaders and editorial pages gave for opposing the anti-bilingual ballot initiative, Proposition 227.

"So much of what we do in education is a reaction to what we just did," lamented Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Washington. "A lot of people I know would have supported Proposition 227 if it had included two to three years of English immersion rather than one, which is seen as draconian and hard to implement."

There has been a similar pattern in reading instruction, which has moved, on and off, from traditional phonics (the sounding out of words) to so-called whole language (looking for contextual clues to meaning). The same has been true of mathematics, where the tradition of drill and practice yielded to a more conceptually oriented approach of word problems and team solutions before emerging to the fore again.

The reading wars are not new -- Jeanne Chall, now retired from an education professorship at Harvard, wrote a book on the debate in 1967 -- but they have grown so intense that a committee of experts commissioned by the National Research Council sought to put an end to them by studying the issue. In a recent report, the committee said there was merit to both approaches and to a mixture of them.

"So often," Finn said, "the truth about these things can be summed up with the word 'both."'

Theodore Sizer, chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a group advocating educational innovation, said being a teacher could be frustrating. "They tell you not to use phonics or whole language," Sizer said, "when in fact a good teacher uses both with an eye on who the kid is. We have this bad habit of giving simple encyclicals to define very complex issues."

That tendency appears to have grown more common in recent decades, with tugs-of-war inside the educational system serving increasingly as proxies for battles over larger societal concerns. (Larry Cuban, education professor at Stanford University, sees an analogy to the religious wars of earlier societies.)

This has been the case to some extent since public schooling was made compulsory in the last century, but even more so since the 1960s, when education began to be viewed as a means toward national as well as personal well-being. "The answer for all our national problems comes down to a single word," President Lyndon Johnson declared in 1965. "That word is 'education.' "

As a result, the war on poverty, absorption of immigrants and preparation of a new multicultural generation are all viewed as appropriate goals for the educational system. At the same time, parents look to schools as a cornerstone of their children's credentials and financial future. Each set of forces creates pressures to innovate, but not necessarily in the same direction.

One factor in the failure of some innovations is the unacknowledged difficulty of undertaking them. Since reform often comes in response to a pressing problem -- immigration, delinquency, international competition -- adjusting the system to meet the need is like repairing an airplane in midflight.

In "The Right to Learn" (Jossey-Bass, 1997), Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Columbia University, noted that after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik four decades ago, American policy makers felt an urgent need to improve teaching. But despite research showing that approaches like "discovery learning" and team teaching prepared students to think more critically than did the rote approach of previous years, efforts to incorporate the new methods largely failed because teachers were not properly instructed in them.

"Perhaps the single biggest obstacle to maintaining progressive reforms is the extensive skill needed to teach both subjects and students well," Dr. Darling-Hammond wrote.

This is evident in the current examinations of what has gone wrong with bilingual education. Finding teachers who were fully bilingual was itself difficult, let alone making sure that they were also skilled and fully trained.

Catherine Snow, a professor of education at Harvard who was chairwoman of the National Research Council committee that examined the teaching of reading, said the trouble with many reforms is that "there is inadequate recognition of how much professional quality it takes to do a good job of them."

Most education research, Professor Snow said, is done by giving bold new ideas to first rate teachers. Their successes produce "lots of descriptions of extremely wonderful, exciting classrooms and relatively few of average classrooms," she said. Far too little research, she added, takes the somewhat jaundiced but essential perspective: not of how good an approach can be when well done, but of how bad it will be when badly done.

Other experts say methods are less important than the presence of dedicated and thoughtful teachers.